The New Zealand First party organisation continued to be directed from its parliamentary offices. Therefore for those close to the party it had little appearance of a democratic mass party. Instead it was more akin to a disorganized fiefdom for its leader. [Read more below]
The actual elected Council of the party merely acted as ‘a rubberstamp for decisions made in the party's parliamentary office’ (Campbell, 16 Nov 1996: p.26). Clearly, NZ First’s official central party structure existed only for show and the regional structures merely followed the directives of the Parliamentary office, carrying out the [donkey work] of raising funds and arranging visits by MPs. Certainly no grassroots policy forums operated in their proper capacity (Campbell, 16 Nov 1996: pp.26-27).
Although Winston Peters repeatedly claimed that the NZ First party membership was the second largest in the country, this issue was disputed by Michael Laws: ‘the party was being inundated with "one-dollar memberships" as potential candidates sought to secure their candidacy selection by enrolling family members, the local sports club and the not-so-occasional random phantom’ (Laws, 1998: p.348).
While NZ First’s disorganised and minimal structure might be explained by the fact that NZ First was only a new and still small political force, the Alliance had shown that a somewhat more complex party organisation and structure could be built in a short period of time. In comparison to the Alliance’s full slate of party spokespeople, Winston Peters’ strong grip on the responsibility for most issues only reinforced the idea that NZ First was little more than a vehicle for one personality. This was reinforced when Peters rearranged the NZ First portfolios in June 1996: 'Peters stacked the deck to give himself the most important cards and pass minor suits to his fellow MPs’ (Evans, 7 Jun 1996: p.25). Peters became the spokesperson for finance, revenue, foreign affairs, defence and immigration.
The NZ First party is a good example of where one personality has obviously had a very strong effect on a party organisation. According to Prebble: 'Winston Peters has no background as a leader; he is psychologically a loner, he doesn't communicate with his MPs; he is so secretive that those closest to him have no idea what the plan is' (Prebble, 1997: p.65). Michael Laws also held similar beliefs: 'I soon came to understand that the entire party reflected Winston's character – ad hoc, mercurial, diffuse and wholly undisciplined' (Laws, 1998: p.300).
When Laws switched to NZ First he quickly became aware that the NZ First parliamentary offices ‘were a complete shambles. The lack of professionalism was obvious, with poisonous personal relationships undermining even the most mundane daily transactions' (Laws, 1998: p.398). Laws was amazed by the 'parlous state of the organisation, the absence of any campaign planning, the virtual policy void, the non-selection of constituency candidates, the ordering of the party list, the obvious lack of finances' (Laws, 1998: p.302).
Due to the lack of any substantial party operation, the various electoral constituencies of the party ‘had no focus for their energy, no representative to lobby local voting blocs and no contact for prospective members’ (Laws, 1998: pp.337-338). According to Laws, this was because Peters’ ‘had surrounded himself with smiling sycophants at the direct expense of administrative competence' (Laws, 1998: pp.337-338).
However, the personality and role played by Michael Laws, too, has been very important for the development of the party organisation. His involvement as an MP, then party strategist and then his absence from the party has changed the whole character of the organisation.
No separate parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings
Essentially very little separation was ever allowed to develop between the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary elements of NZ First. Instead of distinctly separate organisation and parliamentary wings there was only really one amorphous administration or “fiefdom”. This was made further explicit after the 1996 election, when both the party president (Doug Woolerton) and vice-president (Jenny Bloxham) were also Parliamentarians. Furthermore, the NZ First head office was re-established in Bowen House in Wellington – in the same location as the NZ First caucus. This is in distinct contrast with the practices of National, Labour and Act who have their headquarters in separate locations to their parliamentary operations.
The reason that NZ First lacked the complex and substantial party structure that most New Zealand political parties possess was largely due to the origins of the party as a parliamentary-initiated party. Instead of the party spawned by an extra-Parliamentary force, NZ First was started purely by a defecting MP from a larger party. This meant that NZ First was always likely to be a top-down organisation and issues of membership would always run second to ensuring an efficient and effective parliamentary operation.
Part of the explanation for the lacking party organisation also lies in the fact that NZ First is a new party created in the 1990s. Typical of modern parties, NZ First is basically a professionalised party. Because the nature of electioneering is dependent on capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive resources NZ First has been inclined to develop a party structure that does not require the involvement of a mass membership.
[This blog post is part of a series about the history of the New Zealand First party. These posts are being published following the recent decline and then defeat of the party at the 2008 general election. Little academic research has been published on the Winston Peters phenomenon, despite the fact that he and his party have been central to parliamentary politics in New Zealand since the 1980s. Although this series focuses on the early years of New Zealand First, the later years will be dealt with in the future. Considered feedback from readers is very welcome.]